Sony ups its motion-detection game with Softkinetic buy

Softkinetic's time-of-flight sensors can be used to add gestural control to game consoles, cars and mobile devices

Sony has snapped up Softkinetic Systems, a Belgian developer of distance- and motion-detecting cameras and sensors, it said Thursday.

Softkinetic uses a technique called time-of-flight measurement to determine the distance of an object from a sensor, or different parts of an object from a camera, by bouncing packets of photons off it.

The Kinect sensor for Microsoft's Xbox One console already uses the technique to identify players and recognize gestures to control games.

Sony, on the other hand, still requires two cameras for the gesture detection in its PlayStation 4 Camera controller, and uses computationally intensive stereoscopic vision techniques to pick out players from their background.

The acquisition of Softkinetic will make it easier for Sony to incorporate time-of-flight technology in a future game console controller -- but the technology has many more applications.

Because time-of-flight depth sensors do not require stereoscopic cameras widely separated in space, they can be much more compact -- small enough for inclusion in mobile devices such as phones.

They also have applications in cars, where they can be used to control entertainment systems by gesture, without requiring the driver to look away from the road to find physical buttons.

In March Softkinetic demonstrated a US$99 add-on to the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, enabling VR applications to incorporate gesture control by measuring the distance to headset wearers' hands with a 3D depth-sensing camera.

Sony said it plans to combine Softkinetic's expertise in range sensors with its own imaging technologies to develop new sensors, not just for imaging, but for broader sensing-related applications, suggesting that it has an eye on markets such as gesture control or 3D scanning.

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Peter Sayer

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